Understanding the casual player

One of the longest running debates in the MMO world is the casual vs hardcore debate, and one aspect that has always confused me is the usual ‘solution’ you hear from the casual crowd to even the playing field. The most basic problem is that certain content, mainly raiding or high-end PvP, and all the loot/benefits from them, is not accessible by the majority of casual players. Wanting that access, casual players often wish raid-level instances could be 5 manned, or PuG’ed effectively without perfect class balance. You also hear stuff like restraining premade PvP groups to ONLY fight other premades, allowing the casual PuG groups to battle each other. And overall one of the most common things you hear is to make the overall time commitment lower, that grinding rep/consumables/gear takes too long to reach the upper levels of content.

What confuses me is if we assume we make the above changes, what would the actual repercussions be? For starters, the entire hardcore population would instantly burn through the content, because anything that’s PuG-able is going to be a cakewalk for a guild or pre-made. This means that a very vocal minority is now bitching about a lack of content, flooding forums and the like. It also means the overall progression is much faster, where even semi-casual players are reaching ‘maxed out’ status. You either rush development to throw out new content, or you suffer a much higher rate of burn-out.

WoW has shown us exactly what happens when you make anything give a reward regardless; people just stop caring. It’s bad enough when you see it in the BGs, but imagine queueing up for a PuG instance and half your group is afk-droning just to leech whatever little reward you give just for showing up, or are playing while watching TV, going afk constantly and basically playing halfassed. In a guild those players get kicked out and the problem is instantly solved, but in the forgiving world of PuG queueing, players would be stuck constantly dealing with such players. The requirement to field a competent group of 10/25, where people are carrying their weight, is what weeds out the afk players from top guilds, remove that and you remove any need to weed out, basically enabling an even large player base to stop caring.

Another thing that also confuses me is that while casuals ask for content to be less strict in class/time requirement, they still want it to be a challenge. To me this is an impossible task of balancing, because aside from a small group, whatever you do most people will find it either too hard or too easy. The reason ‘too hard’ works for the majority is players can always get better and eventually reach that level of difficulty. This also serves as great motivation to progress your character. The major problem with ‘too easy’ is that once content is conquered, it goes into farm status and ultimately the players move on and forget it. And going back to increase the difficulty would set of a firestorm among players, as you would be basically pushing a group of players backwards, which is never a good thing.

Finally, I often see casuals stating that time does not equal skill, and that if you removed the time barrier, casual and hardcore players could compete on an even playing field, since supposedly then actual ‘skill’ would matter. The flaw in this reasoning is that while certain aspects of raiding are indeed just pure time sinks (raid reset timers, gear check fights, consumable requirements) they go hand in hand with other aspects. Aside from having more time, generally hardcore players also pore over patch notes and class changes, always knowing the optimal skills/setups. In addition, they also huddle in smaller sub-groups in MMOs, generally guilds, and hence are surrounded by like-minded players with dedication, sharing in a wealth of knowledge. If there is a small advantage to be gained, the hardcore will always find it before the casual, and they will exploit that advantage to its fullest. While removing certain time constraints would indeed make things a bit easier for casuals, it would in fact make things MUCH easier for the hardcore crowd, leading to an even greater divide.

My most basic conclusion is that the vocal ‘casual’ players are actually a niche, stuck between the hardcore players that can and the true casuals that don’t care. They are just serious enough to want access to the top levels, but for whatever reason are unable to meet the requirements to access such content. But that’s just my opinion, and hopefully people will share theirs, as the mentality of the ‘vocal casual’ does truly interest me.

About SynCaine

Former hardcore raider turned casual gamer.
This entry was posted in MMO design, PvP, World of Warcraft. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Understanding the casual player

  1. jon says:

    I’ve been following your blog now for about a month or so and have really enjoyed your articles. Clearly, like myself and a few others I know, long for the days of old school UO, where there was no instant gratification. Given what current MMOs are out there right now and with possibly what is coming down the stretch, do you see any game(s) that us old schoolers who don’t need any hand-holding can play and relive in what we used to call “normal life”?

  2. Tobold says:

    You failed to mention the obvious solution to casual players wanting access to raid content, while hardcore players needing a bigger challenge: variable difficulty levels. Just like a normal 5-man dungeon in WoW can be done in normal or heroic mode, why not have everything from Karazhan to the Black Temple in both normal and heroic mode? The heroic mode would be as difficult as it is now, the “normal” mode would be an euphemism for easy mode, doable by a PUG, but giving lower rewards.

  3. syncaine says:

    A mass market game like UO, no. Games like Wurm Online are somewhat UO-like, but they are all small budget games. They are out there though, just have to search a bit more to find them and then deal with primitive graphics and such.

    I still have blind hope that Warhammer Online, at least the PvP, will be a little tougher than what passes for PvP now, but aside from hype, we don’t have much to go on with that.

  4. syncaine says:

    The problem with that Tobold is the hardcore would see and learn everything in easy mode, and then go into hard mode already knowing everything, accelerating progress, which leads to the ‘too easy’ problem. This happened already in WoW with the PTR, guilds would load up on potions and such, transfer over, and practice maxed out on an encounter before doing it on their real server.

  5. Talyn says:

    Define ‘hardcore’ and ‘casual’ first. Those terms are two controversial vaguaries: ask five people what they mean, you’ll get ten answers.

    Many people define ‘casual’ players as those who simply cannot (or will not) devote their entire lives to a game. I suppose I can be lumped into the ‘casual’ category based on 1) my job and 2) after 2 years hardcore-ish playing and raiding in WoW, I’m refusing to allow myself to get sucked in that badly again.

    There’s also the occasionally-seen term ‘middlecore’ which is former hardcore players who have the skill, who have the desire, but not the time. I suppose I’d be a better fit in that category than purely casual.

    For me, personally, I absolutely want the challenge. Having various “modes” of difficulty is a start (WoW, GW and DDO all do it) though I’d rather see scalable content. To accomodate everyone, I’d much rather see the larger dungeons and pretty much all the raids designed in ‘wings’ (I think some of the TBC dungeons started doing this?) that could be completed in shorter amounts of time then picked up later (for casuals) or keep plugging away (for hardcore). Everyone gets the same content, everyone gets the same challenge, just making it easier for the casual to find a spot to “save their game” for the night and be able to jump right back to that spot. I think even Vanguard’s first raid took an approach sorta-kinda along those lines.

    Oh, and ANYTHING is PUG-able. A PUG simply means you’re usually strangers to each other, not that the entire group/raid are noobs who’ve never done anything before…

  6. syncaine says:

    Yea I avoided the whole definition thing because it is rather difficult to define. I also think someone can be hardcore and only play a limited amount of time. When I raided I played a good 40 hours a week, if not more. Now I only play maybe 10 hours a week, but that 10 hours is still somewhat hardcore in that I follow patch notes, understand builds, know instance layouts, etc.

    I do like the smaller instance, and I think way back Scarlet Monastery proved it was a good design. Hopefully it’s something we will see a lot more of in the future, I’m all for it. In that regard (5 hour raids) I agree the uber-hardcore are the only ones able to participate.

  7. Talyn says:

    I will also agree to perhaps a large degree with the sentiment that, at least in the context of MMO’s, time does not equate to skill.

    The adage “practice makes perfect” applies in both life and games. But in an MMO, what exactly do we practice? If you put in 40 hours per week in WoW and I put in 2, does that mean you are superior at pressing TAB+1,2,3 auto-combat? The only real skills you develop are simply being able to 1) read the damn tooltips and 2) understand the words on the damn tooltip and apply them. Is this a situation for Skill A or Skill B? Am I solo or grouped? If I stand here am I out of aggro range? The most casual of casuals can pick up those skills quickly.

    What I often see, especially in the ‘hardcore’ players, is this e-peen concept of “I put in 80 hours a week every week, therefore I’m a better player.” No, *your character* has better *gear* than *my character* which has absolutely nothing to do with the “skill” of either player.

    Move out of the MMO (or RPG in general) and you’ll see much better examples where practice does indeed make perfect. FPS, RTS are both *true* PvP where your “gear” isn’t going to have the final say on the outcome. Then put in one of those famously “casual” games like Bejeweled 2. Casual gamers love that shit, but don’t dare tell me it takes no skill. That stuff gets tricky and you’ve got to get fast on your feet, making split-second decisions. It’s skill, and those casuals kick my ass at it every time, but it’s not a ‘twitch’ skill in the same sense as an FPS.

  8. syncaine says:

    I think twitch skill is very limited in MMOs due to global cooldowns and other factors. Aside from some minor positioning and maybe LoS tricks, there is not much you can do that is twitch aside from hitting keys faster, and that’s fairly basic. It does apply however. My father for instance played WoW for a long time (2 years+) and leveled many characters to max. He however was very slow in terms of targeting and timing skills. Oddly enough, he played RTS games online before that, and was very fast in those, so perhaps it’s more a case that WoW LETS you be slow rather than him simply being so. He developed the bad habit of using arrow keys to move.

    But twitch aside, stuff like knowing spell range distances instantly, knowing all the skills of each class, and common patterns, stuff like that is usually beyond the scope of a casual player. In raiding, just seeing the encounters often lets you get more comfortable with them, nothing surprises you, and you react correctly to each situation. Someone seeing an encounter for the first few times, skill aside, is still going to make mistakes. In that regard the hardcore will always have an advantage over the casual. The difference narrows depending on how quickly you learn to adapt, many raiders are slow learners, while some casuals might pick up on things quickly. Regardless though, that comfort level generally favors the player who has seen the encounter most.

  9. Guy says:

    The great vocal minority…

    Talyn hits on a key aspect. For casual play to be rewarding, it really helps if a little more skill comes into it. The actions you take that rely on your personal skill have to come up often, so you get a nice density of skill-based play in the short amount of time you play. It’s what makes FPSs so great for a short 10 minute play session; the density of actions you take based on your personal skill is very high. You could be exercising your skill (in an FPS: reflexes, aim, timing, and movement) every single second in an intense game.

  10. tenfoldhate says:

    Some great points here. I agree that the average casual player doesn’t give a crap about accessing L337 gear and raids. As a “casual” raider in WoW, I love seeing new content, but care little for the e-peen status that uber epix and nightly raiding bring. As long as I gear to give me decent survivability in PvP that also allows me to do my job sufficiently when I am grouped with guildies, I’m pretty content.

    I think this mentality comes from player who view MMORPGs as competitive rather than social. In a sense, the true casual player is someone who sets his or her own goals in game and doesn’t rank their rate of progression by what their neighbor is doing like some sheep following the herd.

    That said, I think it’ll be a long time before the time sink “he-who-has-the-most-time-to-play-wins” mechanics disappear. These games want to keep their numbers, and to do so, they have to keep swapping out the carrot at the end of the stick so we as gamers don’t move along to another title.

  11. Talyn says:

    Syncaine also seems to be pushing the idea that “hardcore players read the patch notes, know the builds inside-out, etc.” and… to me that is not hardcore, that is min/max and you’ll see *plenty* of min/maxing on the casual side of the fence too.

  12. Graktar says:

    I’m not exactly a casual player, I have a variety of epics over two level 70s, epic flightform on my druid, maxed crafting skills, etc. However, I do have a limited playtime (ah, married life) and the misfortune of playing on an east coast server from the west coast. I can’t raid due to the start time of all the east coast guilds, and Raids can’t be pugged. I’ve reached the point of only logging in once or twice a week to run a heroic with my friends, because there is NO content left for me that does not involve endless, mindless grinding. The only reason I haven’t cancelled is because of my friends.

    [quote]For starters, the entire hardcore population would instantly burn through the content, because anything that’s PuG-able is going to be a cakewalk for a guild or pre-made. This means that a very vocal minority is now bitching about a lack of content, flooding forums and the like. It also means the overall progression is much faster, where even semi-casual players are reaching ‘maxed out’ status.[/quote]

    I hear this argument from hardcore players over and over and over . . . and it’s pointless, it’s not a real argument. What you’re saying may very well be entirely correct, but you’re not comparing it to what is currently the case in a game like WoW. You have a relatively quiet majority that is bitching about a lack of content or, more likely, simply leaving for greener pastures because they’ve hit a wall in content progression. You have a very very small minority that is enjoying endgame content. If raids were puggable, you’d have a very very small minority bitching about a lack of content or leaving for greener pastures, and a relatively quiet majority enjoying endgame content. Which of those, as the company trying to make money from a game, makes the most sense? WoW does not have 10 million subscribers due to their hardcore players, and catering to their desires above all else is idiotic.

    Tobold’s solution of ‘normal’ and ‘heroic’ raids is by far the most elegant. Arguing that having an easy-mode version would allow hardcore raiders to progress faster through the raid circuit is over simplifying the situation. There’s no reason to expect that nerfed bosses in the ‘normal’ version are going to teach a guild how to fight the ‘heroic’ version. If they spent time running the ‘normal’ version, due to raid lockouts they’d likely take MORE time to progress through the raid instances, as they’d still have to run the ‘heroic’ version the same number of times to gear up their members. Even if you’re correct, it’s still not a bad thing. A very very small number of hardcore guilds have conquered Black Temple and Mt. Hyjal. An even smaller number will ever clear the Sunwell. I don’t think there’s a single horde guild on my server that has downed Illidan, yet there are many that have a hardcore playstyle.

    Unused content is wasted development time, as is underused content. WoW has a MASSIVE amount of raid content at level 70, being explored by a tiny minority of the playerbase. It makes no sense.

  13. sid67 says:

    One of my major complaints about WoW is how much gear impacts your ability to compete. I’m not saying that hardcore players shouldn’t be rewarded, just that rewarding them by making them more powerful is ultimately flawed.

    Imagine for a minute that gear was only cosmetic and had no other impact. Instead of getting gear, it was about getting attunements through objectives or milestones. Getting the attunement opened up more content for you. Some of the attunements would be guild objectives, so getting into BT (for example) required the Guild as a whole completing some objective. Other attunements would be account based, so once you completed it with your main there was no need to go back and recomplete it. Other rewards that were cosmetic or trivial (mount speed, mount type) were also provided as you progressed.

    For PvP, the only reward is epeen titles and fancier looking cosmetics. Those that liked PvP would enjoy the pureness of the skill-only PvP. In turn, the BGs would have people playing them for the sake of playing the BGs rather than “grinding out honor”. Having leveled several toons to 70 (of the same class), I know first hand that skill plays far less into my success than my gear. When you get better at BGs, it’s not practice nearly as much as the gear upgrade.

  14. Yeebo says:

    The problem that I personally have with raiding in WoW and many other MMOs (since really, the post seems to be about raiders versus non raiders if you read between the lines) is that they demand large continuous hunks of time. I have that kind of a time hunk maybe once a week, and honestly even if I am playing WoW or some other MMO during that time hunk raiding is a pretty pointless way to spend it. Regardless of how the loot is distributed, DKP need for greed or whatever, the odds of my getting any gear on a particular raid are pretty low. For me to really gear up that way, I’d have to commit to spending every afternoon I take off doing the same raid for at least a few months. I think not.

    As for allowing casuals to get good gear (ostensibly the topic at hand), there are tons of ways to do it. As Talyn mentioned, breaking a raid up into wings so that a “semi-casual” guild can work through it in one hour hunks works wonders.

    Another way, that is rarely used by MMOs for some reason, is the way that Diablo does things. Have the stats on dropped gear be highly randomized. That way you can have a chance of finding decent gear in any hunk of time you decide to spend. I believe AC has a system like this. Dungeon Runners also uses this system, as do many other action RPGs that put a heavy emphasis on online play (Hellgate, PSU, ect.). Taking down a boss greatly increases your chances of getting good loot, but you are likely to find an occasional upgrade doing almost anything.

    Another way is to have crafted gear actually be worthwhile. LoTRO is one of the very few quest driven MMOs that does a good job with this. Critted one shot crafting recipes from the highest tier are very close to the best raid gear. In fact, a player in the best crafted gear can perform just as well in raiding and PvP as someone in raid gear. It is a horrific grind to either A. farm up enough cash to buy the stuff on the AH, or B. craft the stuff yourself. But it’s quite doable in small hunks of time on whatever schedule you feel like. SWG also had a system like this in place, but I’m not sure what it’s like now.

    I have very little sympathy with the idea that hardcore raiders are somehow entitled to gear that completely outclasses gear available doing anything else.

  15. Shalkis says:

    The gear differences between raiders and non-raiders are much smaller than they used to be. For example, the only upgrade for the crafted (read: attainable by casuals) caster goggles drops from Illidan (or Archimonde). Badge loot is equal or superior to SSC/Eye loot, and new badge loot at 2.4 will be at Hyjal / Black Temple level. Even normal blue/epic drops from Heroics are at Karazhan level. And as for continous time.. our raids last 3 hours. That’s the equivalent of a one-and-a-half Heroic instance with a good group or less than one with a bad one. That time is enough to clear Hyjal or half of Black Temple.

    Personally, I disliked Diablo’s completely random loot system, which encouraged mindless and repetetive killing of “safe” mobs. For example, killing Pindleskin over and over was much more productive than even attempting to kill Baal, the final boss. Design that emphasizes the quantity of time instead of quality ot time is just bad design, and encourages people to adopt unhealthy playing habits. If the Sword of the Thousand Truths could be acquired by grinding boars in Elwynn, some people would do it.

    While I agree that casuals can be as good as (or better) than raiders in playing and minmaxing, there is one facet that warrants the higher-quality rewards: The difficulty of organizing and managing 10/20/25/40 people. That’s what’s hard in raiding.

  16. Yeebo says:

    Organizing ten + players really only hard for the two or three people that organize everything, and perhaps for the main tank in my experience. It’s pretty much dead easy for everyone else as long as they can follow instructions. All you need is spare time on the correct schedule.

    In fact going on a raid is often much less risky than a difficult solo or small group encounter, from an individual perspective. It has to be, you can’t force 10-40 players to operate at any where near the limits of their ability for 3+ hours and expect them to be successful.

    I will at least grant you that you want raids to have good rewards, because they provide impetus for players to organize into larger social units. If that is something you wish to force upon players, raiding is a good mechanism to do so.

    However, for it to work raid gear does not have to utterly outclass gear that you get from other avenues. LoTRO is doing just fine with “easymode” crafted epics. And as you point out, WoW is also diversifying the possible routes through which good gear can be obtained. Some of the crafted gear is quite good, and it’s much easier to get good gear through PvP than it was a year ago.

    I see this trend as Blizzard (and MMO designers in general) slowly pulling their heads out of their butts, rather than MMOs being watered down as some hardcore raiders seem to view it.

  17. syncaine says:

    The problem is most people ultimately play WoW for item gain (since getting to 70 is a joke), yet continual item gain leads to disparity among players. Reducing the importance of items lowers that disparity, but also lower the drive to get those items. Tough to balance once you set the expectations. It will be interesting to see if future games like AoC or WAR are as item focused as WoW. Hopefully they saw what happened in WoW and learned not to make items 99% of a players effectiveness.

  18. Talyn says:

    Topic Hijack, but yeah, I’m sick to death of gear-based games. At least LOTRO’s top-end critical-crafted stuff is damn near equal to the raid gear. I miss the days of SWG where you could have people who hated combat and adventure spend their time making the best stuff, the adventuring players were adventuring and therefore could not get their crafting skills that high.

    Fallen Earth and the new #1 on my Watch List, Earthrise, both seem to be heading back to having the players make the best stuff.

    Back to the topic, here’s a comment from Tobold’s latest post on exploration (the commenter runs a WAR site too):
    As a casual gamer, I don’t have the kind of time to waste on these ridiculous endeavors. My goal is the endgame and anything that makes me waste my time “exploring” is not something I’m a fan of.

    He mentions wasting time leveling up (interesting… oh yeah, levels suck…) yet his goal is the end-game which is nothing but a timesink currently.

  19. syncaine says:

    I think gear-only games are bad. In something like UO or AC or DAoC, while gear was a factor, it was not the be all end all that it is in WoW or EQ2. I’m hoping WAR is more DAoC than WoW in that regard, we will see.

    I think the whole ‘exploration’ thing is what you make of it. Sites like Thottbot and WoWhead will always be around, so if someone just wants easy answers, they can get them. On the other hand, if someone truly is a fan of exploring a world, nothing forces them to go and look up answers. Currently playing WoW again, with my gf, we spend a lot of time just wandering around a zone looking at stuff. She is not ‘get to the end’ driven, and likes to take her time, so we end up wandering often. It’s a refreshing way to play, and proves it’s certainly possible even in a game like WoW. I just don’t think something like exploration should ever be forced on people, as not everyone enjoys it.

  20. Talyn says:

    I do, however, think exploration (of the game world) should be rewarded. LOTRO does a great job of it with their exploration deeds. Go off the beaten path, find a cool place then suddenly *bing* you get a message that you’ve just found an exploration spot bringing you closer to completing a deed for a title or small stat increase. It isn’t forced but it encourages getting off the beaten paths.

    One thing I was often discouraged in WoW was, once you enter a zone, you’ve pretty much seen it all. There were very rarely any secret little places that were different from anything else in that zone, so other than locating the outpost/town/quest hub in that zone, there was little incentive to truly explore other than clearing the ‘fog of war’ off your map.

  21. syncaine says:

    This is true, WoW has few ‘secret spots’ that are worthwhile. It does have some, but they are few. I also agree that LoTRO does a great job with the whole exploration aspect. Both the gf and I are looking forward to returning to LoTRO at soem point. We hit the 30ish wall back near release.

  22. Talyn says:

    I’m sorta-kinda peering back into LOTRO recently, but extremely casually. I did make a monster though, that’s actually very damn cool. I hope they expand on PvMP — it sounds like they’re planning to. Book 12 added a new dungeon (raid? not sure yet) to the PvMP zone, whoever controls 3 points in the Ettenmoors opens the dungeon and can head in. While they’re in, though, if the other team gets control of those points, they can go in and chase after the first team… muhuhahaha!

    Otherwise, I might suggest waiting til Book 13 comes out, that one is adding another zone to the game and plenty more cool stuff. I’ll probably make more of a return then. I was starting to get that WoW-ish “must.play.every.day” urge for awhile (because I’m in such a damn cool kinship) so I backed off. Until then, I’m having a helluva time in Vanguard and spending some time in DDO again too.

  23. Shalkis says:

    Yeebo: Actually.. in the “forcing people to organize into larger social units” -department WoW is much kinder than other _massively multiplayer_ games. That’s even seen as a design flaw by many.

  24. Ghost says:

    Basic Definition:

    A Casual Player plays when he has extra time to play he does not plan the day around playing.

    A Hardcore Player will make time on his schedule to play.

    There are degrees if each but the bottom line is that.

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